Losing the Culture War:
The Sack of the NEA

by Brandon Garrett

In a billion dollar entertainment industry of sex and violence, where moviegoers enjoy gratuitous murder and nudity, and vulgarity makes good television, a $150 donation to performance artist Ron Athey created one of the largest conservative outcries of 1994. The outcry was not directed against Athey, who specializes in tatooing and bloodletting himself, or against the well-respected Walker Arts Center, which gave Athey the $150. Strangely enough, conservatives blamed the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), which gave grants to the Walker Center for other unrelated exhibitions--not Athey's. Similar misunderstandings, fueled by a generous amount of political grandstanding, characterize the wild battle over the NEA.

In this battle, religious crusaders are still rattling their shields; presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan told political supporters that as president he would immediately walk into the NEA, "shut the place down, and fumigate the building." He called for his RChristian soldiersS to battle in Ra religious war going on in our country for the soul of America, a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as the cold war itself.

The following week, the Senate and House conference committee managed to stop just short of fumigation, and approved a forty percent cut in the NEA budget. An amendment by Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) also passed which would ban all funding of materials or performances that Rdenigrate the objects or beliefs of adherents of a particular religion,S and that "depict or describe in a patently offensive way, sexual or excretory activities or organs." The amendment will have little effect on artists since the conference committee also moved to eliminate all fellowships to individual artists.

In the midst of this blow to the NEA, Chairman Jane Alexander is trying to raise morale among her troops. Her official comment on the situation is: "The Endowment, while absorbing a major cut, must and will continue to serve a crucial role not filled by any other entity, that of a strong national leader in the arts." Alexander considers the NEAUs continued existence in the face of such opposition a big success. Even conservatives who wished that the NEA be phased out in two years agree. "The endowments will be whittled down a bit, but reports of their death turn out to be greatly exaggerated," critic Jonathan Yardley says.

But with reduced funding and political opponents on all sides the NEA is no longer a strong leader. The proposed NEA cuts are serious and will cause great harm to the arts in America, even to large institutions. The NEA is a political target in a cultural war, and can only survive if a legitimate assessment of its value is made, one that acc-urately describes the endowment's cultural and educational contributions.

Congressional cuts will affect the NEA at an organizational level first. Staff cuts of at least 50 percent will reduce the NEA to a subsistence level. Although NEA spokespeople say that no plans have been made yet, the Yale Repertory Theater's Managing Director Victora Nolan, who has served as chair of the NEA's Theater Panel, has been informed that tentative restructuring will lump all art disciplines into four broad categories: creation and presentation, heritage and preservation, financial grants, and grants for education and access. Critics in the NEA cynically referred to this plan as the Rtheme park program,S and contend that no money will be reserved for any one art form Q disciplines will compete for funds and some disciplines will be discriminated against. Other members of the National Arts Caucus, the governing body of the NEA, are optimistic that separate panels for disciplines will somehow be preserved.

With less money being divided among more applicants, smaller institutions will lose out. RIf you have the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is hard-pressed to offend anybody, and you have the Yale Rep, you choose the MET,S Nolan says. The NEA is under serious pressure from those who wish to phase it out entirely, and is at-tempting to survive by making conservative choices. Helen Brunner of the National Association of Artists' Organizations says "the entire playing-to-Congress mentality has permeated the agency so much that they donUt have to bring it up."

NEA cuts will spare only more powerful institutions like the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG), which receives $93,000 a year from the NEA, mostly for special exhibitions. Nolan says that cuts will also seriously hurt all of the major professional theaters in Connecticut. Theaters and smaller galleries that show new artwork will suffer more than institutions like ballets and museums, which show traditional work. Since private contributions of $9 billion a year dwarf federal funding for the arts, conservatives argue that the private sector can absorb deep cuts in the NEA. However, private funding is linked to smaller NEA grants. Nolan explains that an NEA grant is like a RGood Housekeeping Seal of ApprovalS on a project which encourages private individuals to donate money. NEA grants are Rexplicitly used as a magnet for other funds,S adds YUAG associate director John McDonald. Thus a 40 percent loss of NEA support will translate into an even greater loss of private donations. Furthermore, Nolan says that private foundations have less money to spend on the arts since they are trying to support social service programs that have also lost federal support in the face of conservative opposition.

With major arts institutions in trouble, there is no hope for individual artists. The NEA is looking for alternatives to financial assistance for individual artists, such as providing them with studio space or other technical assistance. Still, Nolan says that Rif you are an unaffiliated artist then forget it, not that there were great huge rafts of money before, but individuals will be hurt the most, . . . artists will be disenfranchised, and they were barely franchised in the first place.S She says that organizations like the Rep will have to lay off artists, who are their main expense.

Massive cuts in arts spending will harm the art world, but will also hit home for many Americans. Contrary to conservative rhetoric, major cuts in the NEA face public opposition. In a TIME/CNN poll taken August 7, 30% supported current levels of funding, and 37% supported a mere 5% cut in NEA funding. One of the reasons the public does not support NEA cuts is that arts funding is important economically. Art is a big industry; according to the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, the nonprofit arts industry supports 1.3 million jobs and $37 billion a year in revenue.

Yale University Art History Professor Jonathan Weinberg, formerly of the Department of Cultural Affairs in New York, says his department conducted several studies on the benefits of arts spending in New York indicating that arts spending is very cost effective, with high returns in tourism and communities. Art critic Robert Hughes reports that the New York City Ballet, Metropolitan Opera and Museum of Art, and other institutions generate $2 billion a year in tourist revenue.

Conservatives contend that arts spending is frivolous and immoral. "Unlike Renaissance princes, Americans are not comfortable with art or with those who make it. We are a can-do people. We are impatient with the contemplative, the imaginative, the esoteric. We like to be amused but not bothered," Yardley says. The evidence demonstates the opposite: Americans do support the NEA. It is only this group of politicians that is impatient with the contemplative.

Both opponents and supporters of the NEA agree on one pointQ that political pressures, and not mediocrity or poor administration, has robbed the NEA of all ability to show leadership in the arts. Politics, not lack of interest or support for the arts, has killed the NEA. Art critic Robert Brustein writes that "The fact is that for the last two decades neither [the NEA or the National Endowment for the Humanities] has been allowed to establish or articulate a clear-cut policy or definition. Periodic hostages to congressional authorization and re-appropriation, they were always prey to external pressures, whether from the left, in the form of multi-cultural panels with political agendas, or from the right, in the form of anti-cultural puritans with moral agendas."

The NEA is in a kind of limbo, and is tossed back and forth by moral crusaders and the politically correct. Controversial art such as the Mapplethorpe photographs and the Serrano photo RPiss ChristS led to conservative attacks on the NEA. Jesse Helms (R-NC) says, "If artists want to go in a men's room and. . . and. . . and write dirty words on the wall, let them furnish their own crayons." Newt Gingrich says that "contributions to federal political campaigns are not tax deductible because taxpayers should not have to subsidize the political activity of their fellow citizens... Why then should they be forced to pay for skillfully presented political statements masquerading as art?" The NEA defended itself against criticism of Mapplethorpe and Serrano by arguing that artists are free to express political views. By defending sensational art, and not showing that such art is the exception to the rule, explains: "In fields from literature to history, from painting to dance, the uncritical embrace of deconstruction and post-modernism has led to the rejection of the most basic notions of artistic quality and scholarly objectivity." She recalls a panel member remark that the "NEA could be grouped into three categories: the mediocre, the political and the obscene... The Federal Government would do better to remain outside the arts altogether."

Members of these panels sharply disagree with MunsonUs assessment of the NEA and say that they did not ever observe what she called Rcensorship on stylistic groundsS at the NEA. Nolan also says that Munson's claims are a "complete overstatement. The degree to which fairness is mandated is extraordinary." These diverse panels include artists, representatives of both large and small theaters, and members of the business community. There is little likelihood that these panels could ever be dominated by one political, geographic or ideological group.

The amazing feature of this back and forth debate that has politicized the NEA is that very little of this controversy relates to actual NEA programs. While conservatives argue that NEA-funded art is liberal and obscene, and while liberals argue that the NEA art is socially worthwhile, neither view represents the art that the NEA really funds. The NEA does not have wildly biased panels; nor does a large amount of its funding go to social programs. NEA funding does go, however, to arts institutions including theaters, museums, symphonies and ballets.

Former Yale professor and National Council for the Arts member William Bailey agrees that the controversy surrounding NEA grants is a giant misunderstanding, albeit an intentional political one. Bailey says that one reason the NEA has been blamed for sensational exhibits is that no curator has courageously taken responsibility for the controversy surrounding an exhibit, instead allowing attacks to target the NEA. The Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and Athey controversies concerned museums misusing very small amounts of NEA money to fund sensational art. Supporters argue that intense, and often absurd scrutiny places the NEA in an impossibly defensive position that it does not deserve. There are entire organizations, the Christian Coalition for example, that do nothing but comb every grant to see if it will somehow benefit an RobsceneS artist. Brunstein adds, "Who has bothered to compare the magnitude of endowment sins with those of less stigmatized government agencies? Is anyone (other than a few libertarians or militia groups) calling for the abolition of the FBI because of Waco, or of the CIA because of Aldrich Ames?"

Another irony of this controversy is that cuts in the NEA hurt exactly the kinds of causes that conservatives claim to support, namely major arts institutions, historical art, art preservation and the arts in rural areas. On the other hand, controversy has helped the people conservatives intend to hurt. Jesse Helms and others have made the careers of artists like Serrano and performance artist Karen Finley; they have become celebrities and their work has sold for higher and higher prices. The Helms amendment will only contribute to their celebrity, while sending a message that Congress can and should influence the content of art. Bailey says that the amendment may not pass, but if it does it will place Congress in the business of "cultural ridicule. The Helms Amendment cancels out a large portion of Western Art if you take it literally, which is the only way you can take it if it is law."

This substantive kind of information about the NEA and the effects of cuts is irrelevant for extreme conservative opponents and for extreme liberal defenders. Neither group cares about what the NEA really does because for both the NEA is really a symbol of what art should or should not be. The NEA serves as a symbol for government support of the arts, and is therefore a target for cultural criticism. The fierceness of these battles, waged by rigidly opposed camps, may mean that no compromises can be made and the NEA will be the sacrificial lamb of the culture wars. Professor Weinberg says that at least "artists will go on, and will gain in subject matter when they respond out of protest. Artists are resilient. If they survived the 50Us they will survive the 90's."

Still, because the NEA is a symbol that the government cares about art, supporters feel that even if current cuts make the NEA less influencial of an institution, retaining the NEA is an important victory. William Bailey says "the truly important thing is to believe that the NEA has value. It is not perfect but we must keep it aliveQ there will be other administrations, other Congresses. Funding can change dramatically, but it would be hard to revive the NEA if it were killed."

Perhaps these cuts in the NEA will be the end of the culture wars, but since the political controversy has so little to do with actual NEA spending, the NEA will not be safe in the near future. After all, previous attacks on the NEA were only marginally related to NEA spending, and the NEA will still be giving money to museums that could be criticized for future exhibits. Opponents will only relent when the government no longer supports the arts in any way. Meanwhile, this attack on the arts is damaging public perception of art. Nolan says that partly because of "the arts bashing of the last decade, we are seeing an erosion of the audience base all over the country [for theater]. I am beginning to wonder if arts bashing is having a psychologically insidious effect."

Because of the strength of opposition and perhaps the weakness of defenders, the NEA has been stripped down to its bare bones. The most telling loss for artists is the end of individual grants, but the message of intolerance that the Helms amendment embodies and funding cuts will also mindlessly inflict damage on the arts. These NEA cuts will hurt arts institutions economically but more importantly will also be damaging symbolically, since the end of government spending on the arts will be a sign that government no longer cares about artists or culture. President JohnsonUs charter for the NEA states its lost mission: "While no government can call a scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the federal government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent." YJE

Endnotes:1 Gannet News Service, September 13, 1995.2 National Endowment for the Arts, Public Policy Press Release, September 15, 1995.3 Jonathan Yardley, The Art of Self Indulgence, Washington Post, A25, September 24, 1995.4 C. Carr. "Grant's Tomb: The NEA Shrinks Artists Funding." Village Voice, November 15, 1994.5 Robert Hughes, "Pulling the Fuse on Culture; The ConservativeUs All-Out Assault on Federal Funding is Unenlightened, Uneconomic and Undemocratic." Time, 60, August 7, 1995.6 Robert Brustein, "The Smashing of the Bell," New Republic, no. 7, 26 August 14, 1995. 7 CNN, Larry King Live Show, September 18, 1995.8 Newt Gingrich, letter to the editor, Time , August 14, 1995.9 New Republic, January 9, 1995. 10 Lynne A. Munson, Art by Committee, The New York Times, . A23, September 21, 1995


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